Liar, Dreamer, Thief by Maria Dong

A young woman relies on ritual and fantasy to navigate her daily life–until the real world turns as bizarre as her worst fears.

Maria Dong’s debut novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief, is a masterfully harrowing adventure for both reader and narrator. Katrina Kim is 24 years old and struggling to keep it together. She’s not great at her temp job at an insurance company; she has no real friends other than her mostly absent roommate; she relies on rituals involving geometry and prime numbers to feel safe from her shapeless, apparently irrational fears; she frequently imagines herself into the magical world of her favorite children’s book or the classical works of music she once performed. She argues that she is not stalking her coworker Kurt, but readers will suspect this may be semantics. She has $45 in her bank account and her parents haven’t spoken to her in years. Readers may assume Katrina is struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness, drawing endekagrams (a star polygon with 11 points) to help her get through the days–until she happens to watch Kurt jump off her favorite bridge, while shouting that it is all her fault.

Liar, Dreamer, Thief is punctuated with geometry lessons (the four stellations of the endekagram) and passages from the fantasy book that provides Katrina with her other, safer-feeling life, emphasizing these coping mechanisms as she embarks on an amateur (and poorly funded) investigation into Kurt’s disappearance. Her barely functional life goes further to pieces. Just as readers begin to worry that this narrator is not only unreliable but completely unstable, the clues shift slightly, and suddenly it appears that some of Katrina’s nastiest and most fantastical fears may be all too real.

This is a completely absorbing novel, both a terrifying whodunit thriller and a heart-wrenching drama about mental health, family, loneliness and moral relativism. Dong’s pacing and revelation of secrets is expert; beware staying up late to finish Katrina’s story in one go (and, perhaps, beware nightmares of the Mirror Man). Katrina makes some cringe-worthy choices while facing challenges both existential and mundane (clocking in on time in the cubical farm); she is an imperfect protagonist but disturbingly accessible, and indomitable even in her lowest moments. Liar, Dreamer, Thief excels at empathy and conveying the frustration of one’s own limitations, as Katrina wonders, “Does everyone in my orbit have a secret tragedy, just crawling underneath the surface?” Its mysteries swell toward a denouement that feels simultaneously unwieldy and inevitable. Probing those secrets may be mortally dangerous–or may be Katrina’s salvation.

This exceptional debut novel showcases relentless momentum, horrors, compassion and an unforgettable protagonist: not to be missed.


This review originally ran in the November 11, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 minutes.

The Marsh Queen by Virginia Hartman

Mystery, romance, conspiracy, family drama, natural history and art combine in this excursion into a decades-old suspicious death in the swamplands of northern Florida.

Loni was 12 years old when her beloved father headed into the northern Florida marsh in his johnboat and did not return. At 36, she is working her dream job as a natural history artist at the Smithsonian, ignoring her past and her remaining family as hard as she can, until her younger brother calls to insist she come home to help care for their mother. The Marsh Queen, Virginia Hartman’s fast-paced, compelling first novel, sees the prodigal daughter return to the swamps, the family she left behind, the mystery of her father’s death and the possibility of a fresh start.

“Daddy wasn’t just a visitor to the swamp, he was a part of the place.” Loni’s father, Boyd, was a Fish & Game officer, a fisherman, a devoted husband and father and a most unlikely suicide, although that was the rumored–and covered up–cause of his death. Loni was his usual companion in the swamps, uninterested in fishing but a passionate and talented illustrator of the birds they watched together. As an adult, she’s kept that passion, but grown distant from her brother and especially from her always-prickly mother, Ruth, now suffering from dementia. A serious gardener and herbalist, Ruth struggles with painful secrets long kept from her daughter. Loni’s leave of absence from the Smithsonian comes at an especially stressful time at work, and returning home is always painful; nothing about this trip feels right. But Loni canoes the swamps, discovers family secrets, investigates her father’s death, finds herself involved in fresh intrigues and dangers–and meets a handsome stranger. The Smithsonian, and leaving Florida behind, have always been central to Loni’s life plan, but as she sinks back into the quirks of family and home, she may just find a new way.

Hartman’s descriptive writing and clear passion for her subject are on best display when Loni immerses herself in the natural environment, in her art and in her memories of Boyd. In her contemporary relationships, Loni can be frustratingly obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. As the enigma around Boyd’s suspicious death gets more complex, the plotting can feel a little unwieldy. But the subversion of Loni’s expectations is frequently refreshing; a few secondary characters offer intriguing perspectives, and the novel’s framing details of Florida marshland, ornithology, museum work and fine art are expertly and beautifully drawn. The Marsh Queen is unwavering in its lush, finely detailed, appreciative portrayal of a distinctive natural setting, and ends on a redemptive, even inspirational note.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 herons.

Better Off Dead by Lee Child and Andrew Child

Once could have been a fluke, but twice is solid. The Andrew Child continuation of the Lee Child empire will be okay.

Pretty classic building blocks here. Reacher’s just walking down a road in borderland Arizona when he comes across an unusual scene: an apparent car crash that isn’t what it looks like. (I won’t mention the opening chapter, which contains tricks of another sort.) Reacher tropes: a small town in the grips of an evil it wishes it could shake, but the locals don’t have the juice to deal with forces this great. Our hero stumbles into it, and feels sympathy for certain involved parties (and if one of them happens to be an attractive, super-competent woman of about his age, more’s the pity). Also, cue the timely issue of veteran suicide rates. There are some solid fight scenes and more trickery than I’m used to, actually, in terms of the plot itself: I appreciate this. Look, Reacher novels are familiar, even formulaic, but in the best ways, and in ways that still keep me page-turning and generally manage to surprise me. I was sure I saw the whodunit coming in this one and I was wrong. This remains a comfort read (despite the blood and guts); it’s like coming home. And I am just so terribly relieved that the Andrew Child continuation of the franchise seems to be going swimmingly.

Promotional copy claims that this one “will be the riskiest job of Reacher’s life,” to which I say, come on, have y’all read the previous 25 Reacher novels? It’s okay. I can’t wait for the next riskiest job of his life! Keep ’em coming.


Rating: 7 condoms.

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced review copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.


Chloe Davis was twelve years old the summer that six teenaged girls went missing from her small hometown of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. She found that the place she felt the safest was not so safe after all, when her father was arrested and pled guilty to six murders. As the twentieth anniversary of that summer approaches, we meet Chloe at age thirty-two. She is a clinical psychologist in Baton Rouge, recently engaged, and barely holding it together (she has a prescription pill problem, for one thing, abetted by Louisiana’s unusual system that allows psychologists to prescribe drugs). When a local teenager goes missing, and then another, she begins to lose the plot (no pun intended) while conducting her own highly amateur investigation.

I wanted to like it (not least because this book was originally assigned as a review for Shelf Awareness), but this thriller was not terribly successful for me. The writing was a little tired (Southern accent compared to molasses), and the characters frustratingly ill-suited to their professions: for a psychologist, Chloe is remarkably inexpert in human behavior; the police detective can’t stop interrupting his interview subject. I kind of lost it when the undergrad student said she’ll get her doctorate next, and then, hopefully, her master’s! (To be fair, let’s remember I got an advanced review copy – I surely hope this will be corrected before the final publication. But really.)

I finished it, but wish I hadn’t.


Rating: 4 red herrings.

Lee Child shorts: “Public Transportation” and “Wet with Rain” (audio)

“Public Transportation” was available from Audible as a standalone short (originally from the collection Phoenix Noir), and “Wet with Rain” comes from Exit Wounds: Nineteen Tales of Mystery from the Modern Masters of Crime. They were, I think, 13 and 28 minutes respectively, give or take. Just a few quick indulgences during a drive to the next county to my local bike shop.

Classic Child, so not much to report here, but in the best ways. “Public Transportation” offers a surprise twist and no serial characters. A cop is talking with a journalist about an old unsolved murder case; we get a fairly quick summary of the crime, the investigation (in hindsight, botched), and the problematic conclusion eventually settled on by the police department. “Wet with Rain” is also Reacher-free, but slightly more involved. We get a little less context, but eventually understand that two Americans with a certain agency have traveled to Ireland to run a secret operation, about which information is doled out slowly and out of order, so that we’re still putting things together even as they happen. Each of these stories represents a sort of puzzle – for the reader and for the players involved. Only one has a quick punch of a surprise; the other is more of a slow burn. And, again, neither involves our hero Reacher. But each serves as a good example of Child’s skill with intrigue, detail, and apparently effortless storytelling (which actually may be the hardest kind), as well as a certain dark side of human nature. I enjoyed both as quick jaunts, and would love to have access to more of the same: quick, punchy stories by authors I know I love. My lifestyle doesn’t support longer audiobooks these days. Look for more podcast reviews to come, I guess…

“Drive” by James S. A. Corey

Another short from one of my favorites series, “Drive” briefly profiles an inventor and his invention, which we’ve been aware of as a sort of fact-of-life technology in the rest of The Expanse: here is Solomon Epstein, and his Epstein drive. We meet Solomon en media res, mid-experiment, as his improved drive turns out to work but also threaten his life. In this timeline, he struggles to save himself, while interspliced scenes show how he got here: glimpses of who he was, in particular with the woman who became his wife. It’s awfully moving, actually, a very fine, clipped view of a human with no villain to him (rare in this fictional world). I am again impressed with Corey’s skills, and I can’t wait to find more of this world, the expanse that appears in the final line of this lovely, sad, stand-alone story. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 8 bits of colored glass.

Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling (audio)

On a recent cross-country drive, I lifted this year’s ban on audiobooks, obviously. This one took me two days of driving – a much more favorable pace at which to take in an audiobook, especially one involving suspense. Before the Ruins isn’t lightning-paced – it’s not that kind of thriller – but there was a steady building of tension.

Andy’s feeling pretty safely distant from her own past when she gets a phone call from the mother of her childhood best friend, Peter, saying that he’s gone missing. She hasn’t seen Peter in six months or so. They’ve grown apart. Asked to look for him, though, she finds herself drawn into the events of their youth. Andy and Peter were part of a close-knit foursome, with Em and Andy’s boyfriend Marcus, then joined by an outsider fifth, David, during the fateful summer that they were 18 and 19 years old. The events of that summer were followed by a nasty winter a few years later, in which everything changed. Now Andy finds herself pulled back to the old manor estate where it all went down, back when she was a disadvantaged kid with an alcoholic single mom, quick to fight and slow to trust. Perhaps less has changed than she’s realized.

The novel slips back and forth in time, flashing back to the summer of Andy’s late teens and the winter of her early twenties, and back to the present, when she is nearing 40, finally financially secure but personally unmoored. Searching for Peter means reopening old wounds that never healed, and reconnecting with people she hasn’t missed.

In its actual events, the story often left me just a little disappointed, because the conflicts felt so unremarkable: young people, hormones, sex, hurt feelings. It sometimes felt like a lot of dramatic trappings for fairly humdrum activity. The word for this one is definitely atmospheric – driven not by plot but by feeling, and somewhat less so by character. I was reminded, at its best moments, of Tana French. In the final denouement, there are indeed surprises, but it’s the sense of foreboding, the magic of place (that old manor estate, and certain locations in Italy and France late in the book), and the mystery of character that carry this novel. We only get Andy’s perspective, and because of Andy’s trauma, her self-deceit, her constant bid to reinvent herself, and her caginess, we remain unclear on much of her own internal workings; certainly the other characters are enigmas. The slow reveal of each friend’s motives, what they knew and didn’t know, makes for the most interesting mystery of this thriller.

The audio production by Kristin Atherton is lovely, with voices and accents and reinforcement of that all-important atmosphere. I definitely recommend this format.

Final verdict? Not the most masterful thriller I’ve ever encountered, but absorbing and entertaining, and did surprise me at its end. Worth the time.


Rating: 7 sodden-looking sheep.

“The Butcher of Anderson Station” by James S. A. Corey

Just a quickie here: this short story establishes the history of Fred Johnson, aka the Butcher of Anderson Station, in The Expanse universe. It only makes me want more from this series, of course. The story handles two timelines. In one, Colonel Fred Johnson is ordered to retake the captured Anderson Station, and he does so, making what appears to be the wisest military decision along the way. Then he gets some new information. In a parallel story that takes place later, the OPA’s Anderson Dawes wants to talk about it with Fred. The story cuts back and forth between the two. By the end of this quick installment (36 pages, I’m told, in print – I’ve got an ebook version), we see the Fred Johnson that we’ll meet in the bulk of The Expanse. Dawes is also a recurring character; the rest (those central to the novels) are absent here, but it’s absolutely the story of Johnson himself, so supporting characters are mostly extraneous.

This story has it all: space jargon, tough decisions and moral quandaries, interesting characters and rich world-building. It whets the appetite nicely and I’ll be looking for more Expanse, as ever.


Rating: 8 seams.

Cleaning the Gold by Karin Slaughter and Lee Child

Another quickie from Reacher, somewhere in the short story/novella range, this time from Lee Child working with Karin Slaughter, who I’ve never read but obviously I know the name. An introductory Authors’ Note tells us that the authors have been friends for decades, and that their contributions to this story are merged “so you won’t necessarily know who wrote what.” Cleaning the Gold involves the head-to-head meeting of the authors’ respective serial stars: Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Jack Reacher, retired Army MP. The former is new to me, but I like him.

In a nutshell, and with a mild spoiler, both these men are sent undercover to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, for different reasons. Reacher’s there to catch somebody on the inside, in a crime I won’t name here. Trent is there to catch Reacher. They both have to do some figuring-out, and they have to figure each other out, too.

Like “The Christmas Scorpion,” this is a satisfying enough short story, but not a perfect one – neither Child nor the Slaughter/Child team is on par with Hemingway or du Maupassant in terms of the deft, poetic turn of masterful short fiction. It’s fine. Both leads get cute and pithy lines and the scenes that convey their characters; there is a fight scene or two. In close third person, chapters alternate their points of view, and it’s fun to see each man from his counterpoint’s perspective. There are a few layers of mystery, which is always neat, but it might be a hair ambitious for a story of this length (listed at 144 pages, but only about 100 of that is Cleaning the Gold; the rest is a preview of a then-forthcoming novel by Slaughter). It ends with an loose thread that is not entirely typical of Child’s work; he’ll leave an opening for the next installment, but not an actual loose end. I wasn’t crazy about that in the finish; I think we could have used a bit more closure, which might have helped with the neatness of the short-story-as-genre. And I do think the story would have tolerated losing that last layer of mystery.

I faltered on the very first page, too, with two details that felt very atypical of Child/Reacher. (Despite the authors’ assurances, I did feel that I could tell who was who, at least here.) I cannot imagine Reacher ever noting that “the temperature outside had already passed the boiling point” unless it were literally true, which (Google tells me) has never been recorded on earth. He’s pretty pedantic like that. Then, Will “watched a bead of perspiration drop from his nose and roll across the floor.” Something about the bead of sweat, itself, as a bead, rolling across the floor bothers me, in terms of physics. (Reading Reacher makes me extra pedantic, too?) On the other hand, a judicious number of jokes (two) about the place being “guarded like Fort Knox” went over well with this reader. And a single reference to Tom Cruise and the most unbelievable scenes in action movies, which I am reading as a joke about his (problematic) role as Reacher in two films to date, went over very well.

Maybe not my favorite thing ever by Child, but a perfectly nice way to spend a little time on my front steps with a beer and a little dog.

Also, the teaser of Slaughter’s next Will Trent novel, The Last Widow, is good.


Rating: 7 gold bars, obviously.

“The Christmas Scorpion” by Lee Child

Very short review for a very short story – I love that I can use my local library to catch up on all the little Reacher snippets I may have missed! This one took just a few minutes to read. Reacher heads south for the winter, by habit, because he doesn’t like the cold. But he finds himself outside Barstow, California in a freak blizzard, and then is quickly sucked into a plot involving a foreign dignitary and a mysterious would-be assassin. It’s a fun Reacher-style puzzle, with building tension and a whodunit, but actual violence is minimal.

Despite the title, this is not a Christmas-themed story, although there is snow.

The short format doesn’t leave room for much development of Reacher or the other players, so I think this one reads best for preexisting fans who know the background – not a great entry point for newcomers, because there’s not enough background. (Short stories are hard. This one relies on the rest of Child’s body of work.) But as a quick hit for the fans? I loved it.


Rating: 7 shadows.
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